The running back position can be a fickle one. With all the carnage on the gridiron, running backs typically see greatness for just a few short years in the NFL before becoming discarded for a younger, healthier player. Players such as Gayle Sayers, Earl Campbell and Christian Okoye had demonstrated greatness for just a few short years until injuries and the general wear and tear of the game took its toll. In the mid-2000s, the Kansas City Chiefs featured a running back that took the NFL by storm for three memorable years. This is Priest Holmes' story.
The Early Years
Priest Anthony Holmes was born on October 7, 1973 in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Although he shared his biological father's surname, he never met the man and only saw him at his funeral. Instead, he was raised by his mother and his stepfather, an aircraft technician in the Air Force. He went by his middle name in those days, His family moved to San Antonio when he was young and young Anthony Holmes led a normal childhood in a military household, but his work ethic had yet to truly take root. That changed when he was 13.
That summer, he spent time working for his grandfather's lawn care business in Detroit. Working 12-hour days for six days a week, Anthony Holmes learned the value of putting in a good hard day's work. He used that newfound work ethic on the gridiron and in just a few short years found himself starring for John Marshall High School. As a senior in 1991, he rushed for 2,061 yards and led his team to the Texas state championship, losing to the Permian Panthers. Holmes didn't go down quietly, rushing for 118 yards and scoring a touchdown in the 27-14 defeat. He finished his high school career with more than 4,000 yards on the ground.
After a stellar prep career, Anthony Holmes was awarded a scholarship to the University of Texas. College was a rough time of growth for him. He struggled to find playing time in his first two years, but by 1994 had become a regular contributor, rushing for 524 yards and scoring five touchdowns. He peaked in that year's Sun Bowl by rushing for 161 yards and four touchdowns against North Carolina, earning the game's MVP. Things were looking well for the young man. So well that he decided to go by his first name, Priest.
But football has a way of humbling the proud. He lost his senior season with a torn-up knee and ultimately lost his starting spot to much-hyped recruit Ricky Williams. It's never easy backing up a future Heisman Trophy winner. After taking a medical redshirt in 1995, Priest Holmes only carried the ball 59 times in his senior year, but somehow found the endzone 13 times on the ground. Texas made it all the way to the inaugural Big 12 championship game that year against the dynastic Nebraska Cornhuskers who were ranked third in the nation.
Priest Holmes arguably had his finest day as a collegian against the mighty Cornhuskers as he rushed for 120 yards and three touchdowns, leading his team to a surprising ten-point victory. But despite his heroic performance, it was too little too late for NFL scouts and he found himself undrafted.
Life is often difficult for the undrafted. After all, they were never truly "wanted". In order to survive in the NFL, they have to work extra hard every single day just to survive the numerous cuts in training camp. Every man has to find a way to stick around. Despite only appearing in seven games and never carrying the football once in his career, Priest Holmes found a way to stick around the Baltimore Ravens. He earned the starting spot in 1998 and recorded his first thousand-yard season. But injuries plagued his performance in 1999 and the organization quickly drafted his replacement, Jamaal Lewis.
Despite the competition, Priest Holmes performed relatively well in the backup role, rushing for 588 yards and two touchdowns for the eventual Super Bowl champions. After winning a ring with the Ravens, he entered free agency and was quickly picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs were entering a transition phase of their own, having just hired Super Bowl-winning coach Dick Vermeil out of a brief retirement.
From the start, Priest Holmes fit in with the Chiefs' offense, leading the league with 1,555 rushing yards and eight touchdowns in 2001 while earning his first All-Pro and Pro Bowl nods. He was the first undrafted player to lead the NFL in rushing and remained the only one to do so until Arian Foster reached the same feat in 2010. It was the beginning of a fascinating period of his life. After leading the league in yards rushing in 2001, he rushed for 1,615 yards and 21 touchdowns (led the league) in 2002, again earning All-Pro and Pro Bowl recognition.
Despite his consistency on the ground, the Chiefs failed to make the playoffs in each of his first two years in Kansas City. The clock was ticking as organizations that fail to make the playoffs often make rapidly major changes in frustration, costing jobs and changing lives. Dick Vermeil, Priest Holmes and the rest of the Chiefs rose to the occasion, earning the second seed in the playoffs. Along the way, Holmes rushed for 1,420 yards and led the league with 27 touchdowns on the ground. With 66 touchdowns over the past three years, he set a league record. Despite his 176 yards and two touchdowns, the Chiefs couldn't survive Peyton Manning's areal assault, losing in a Divisional Round shootout 38-31.
There's a well-tested belief in the NFL that running backs who carry the ball more than 300 times will ultimately break down after that taxing season. Over the past three years, Priest Holmes had carried the pigskin no less than 313 times. the carries carried a heavy price and he would never again reach a thousand yards. That doesn't mean he wasn't successful. In 2004, he rushed for 892 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Midway through the following season, it looked like he was on his way to perhaps another triple-digit season when fate intervened. He suffered a painful spinal contusion in a helmet-to-helmet collision on October 30 against the Chargers' Shawne Merriman. He would lose the rest of that season and all of 2006 due to that moment of impact. By the time he returned in 2007, the Chiefs had found his replacement, Larry Johnson. After reinjuring his neck against the Colts, Priest Holmes retired in November 2007, having gained just 137 yards on the ground.